Criminal Justice Reform Advocates File First Amendment Lawsuit Against N.J. Police Detective
Plaintiffs Suffered Emotional Distress After Being Charged with Felony Cyber Harassment for Social Media Activity; Charges Were Later Dropped
NEWARK, N.J. (February 10, 2021) — Kevin Alfaro and Georgana Sziszak, who were charged with felony cyber harassment under New Jersey law for social media activity following a June protest calling for reforms to the criminal justice system, filed a First Amendment lawsuit today in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.
The lawsuit, against Nutley Police Department (NPD) detective Michael Rempusheski, seeks to vindicate Mr. Alfaro’s and Ms. Sziszak’s First Amendment rights and challenges the abuse of police authority to suppress free speech.
“Our Constitution does not permit the government to punish members of the public who do no more than speak out for change and challenge authority,” said Robert Friedman, senior counsel at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP). “Staunchly protecting the First Amendment rights of those who joined and supported millions across the country in marching for reforms to the criminal justice system is critical to the free exchange of ideas and allowing the public to lay the groundwork for reform.”
“The Nutley Police Department’s baseless prosecution of Mr. Alfaro and Ms. Sziszak was clearly intended not to enforce the law but to punish those who criticized fellow police officers,” said co-counsel Alan S. Peyrouton, Esq. “Anyone who believes in the First Amendment rights of Americans to speak out against injustice should condemn these blatant efforts to retaliate against and punish them for exercising their right to speak about a public official engaged in public duties.”
On June 26, 2020, Mr. Alfaro, 22, posted a picture of an on-duty Nutley, N.J. police officer on Twitter to ask if anyone could identify him. Mr. Alfaro hoped to use the answer, if he received one, to complain about the officer’s conduct: earlier that same day, the officer had concealed his badge at a protest calling for changes in police practices and had failed to intervene when counter-protesters verbally threatened Mr. Alfaro. Ms. Sziszak, 20, “retweeted” Mr. Alfaro’s tweet.
Nearly a month later, Rempusheski, a detective in the Nutley Police Department and a coworker of the officer pictured, issued a criminal summons to Mr. Alfaro, Ms. Sziszak, and three others, charging them with cyber harassment, a felony punishable by up to 18 months in state prison. The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office dismissed them two weeks later rather than seek an indictment.
In the meantime, Detective Rempusheski’s abuse of authority had its intended effect of intimidating and punishing Mr. Alfaro and Ms. Sziszak for speaking out. Both plaintiffs experienced anxiety, sleeplessness, and distress from fear of spending time in jail, being labeled criminals, and the stress of arranging criminal defense. Ms. Sziszak also experienced complications with her diabetes and had to miss work due to the distress of facing a felony charge.
A complete copy of the lawsuit can be read here.
About Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP)
The mission of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection is to use the power of the courts to defend American constitutional rights and values. The Institute, based at Georgetown University Law Center, draws on expert litigators, savvy litigation strategy, and the constitutional scholarship of Georgetown to vindicate individuals’ rights and protect America’s constitutional way of life.